Criterion Sunday 136: Spellbound (1945)

There’s no shortage of likeable hokum in this film, filled as it is with the excitable babble of newly-learned psychoanalytic jargon and dated jokes about mental health issues. Bergman is excellent, there’s that Dalí dream sequence, the gun boldly pointed at the screen. But gosh it doesn’t half seem a bit ludicrous, with all kinds of conveniently-remembered details to move the plot along, the redemptive power of believing in someone’s innocence because they’re pretty handsome (oh Gregory Peck), and so much condescending and mansplaining to the unfortunate Ingrid Bergman’s doctor, who to her credit largely shrugs it off. My favourite sequence is where the police connect the dots by drawing glasses on her glamour headshot to figure out she’s actually (gasp!) that educated woman they met once in a doctor’s office.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 December 2016

Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Larry Manda | Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio | Length 485 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 135: Rebecca (1940)

What a film, eh? Rebecca feels in many ways like the ur-text for every filmed gothic melodrama where people stand in gloomy rooms withholding secrets from one other, whilst dolefully looking out of frame clutching some treasured object. It’s all gripping novelistic stuff that most people will probably be familiar with already — a naïve, unnamed young woman (“I” in the novel) marries a wealthy landowner and finds she can never live up to her unseen but omnipresent (not least in the title) predecessor. It’s Hitchcock’s first proper Hollywood film, even if still largely set in England, and it’s made with panache, employing a fluid, gliding camera in glorious monochrome. Joan Fontaine pitches her role just the right side of coquetry, and Laurence Olivier has the gruff ways of a Mr Darcy type.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson | Length 130 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, 2016)

At a certain level, this is a classic story of revenge, as Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years of false captivity and seeks out the rich man who set her up. However, this is a Lav Diaz film, so events unfold slowly, in high-contrast black-and-white. As Horacia formulates her plan she comes into contact with a number of poor street people, and getting to know them becomes in many ways more important than the plot. It is, then, I suppose a film again about Filipino society (at a specific point in time, the late-90s) but also about time taken away — which is a little bit of meta-commentary for the patient audience, given the usual length of Diaz’s films (though this one is under four hours).


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Charo Santos-Concio | Length 228 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Sunday 5 March 2017

Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station aka The Iron Gate, 1958)

There’s a potent, heady sense of melodrama at work here in this foundational Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, even if it does turn on a rather creepy obsessive guy (played by the director himself). In its location shooting and heightened drama, it reminds me of the Italians of the period (it could stand alongside any early Fellini such as the ones I’ve been watching on the Criterion Collection recently). There’s a vibrancy to the filmmaking and a knowingness to the acting, and the black-and-white cinematography is striking. That all said — and I do recognise this film is 60 years old — I am certainly weary of scripts which use a disability (here a lame foot leading to a small limp) as a metaphor for some deeper existential malaise.


FILM REVIEW
Director Youssef Chahine | Writers Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib | Cinematographer Alevise Orfanelli | Starring Farid Shawqi, Hind Rostom, Youssef Chahine | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 131: Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains aka Closely Observed Trains, 1966)

A simple film in many ways, it takes the form of a provincial sex comedy as a young man serving as a train station guard for reasons of avoiding doing any hard work tries but mostly fails to be more successful with women. But there’s also a war going on, and Czechoslovakia is controlled by the Nazis, so that becomes an increasingly important part of what the film is trying to do — equating, at some level, the coming of age story with the work of the resistance. In retrospect, it could hardly end any other way, and it’s reminiscent of the previous Criterion Collection film (The Shop on Main Street) in locating all the dramas and horrors of wartime life amongst everyday characters and in mundane situations. Also, there’s a memorable rubber stamping scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jiří Menzel (based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal) | Cinematographer Jaromír Šofr | Starring Václav Neckář, Josef Somr | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 130: Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street aka The Shop on the High Street, 1965)

When the fascists come they’ll offer to let you take back one of those jobs the immigrants have ‘stolen’ but you won’t have to hurt anyone so you’ll probably go along with it. It might even lead to a bit of cross-cultural comedy of misunderstandings but you just want everyone to be fine and for things to be better, and the fascists seem tolerable enough. One of them might even be a family member. But when the fascists start taking names, passing laws, and packing people on transports out of town, by then it’ll be too late and there’s really nothing you can do except get drunk and watch it all go to hell.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos | Writers Ladislav Grosman, Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (based on the novel by Grosman) | Cinematographer Vladimír Novotný | Starring Jozef Kroner, Ida Kamińska | Length 125 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 October 2016

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 129: Le Trou (1960)

I was thinking I’d already seen a film like this one in the Criterion Collection before I came to write it up here and realised I’d seen this film before, years ago. That said, the prison escape thriller is hardly an exotic genre, and some of the procedural matter-of-factness and the way it dwells on little repeated details is very reminiscent of thrillers of the era like Rififi, which likewise focus on elaborate carefully-orchestrated plans made in luminous black-and-white. It all passes very swiftly, as there are plenty of long sequences that are gripping because of all the things you imagine could go wrong. The fact it’s cast with mostly non-professional actors (including one of the chaps involved in the escape upon which the original novel was based) is all the more surprising given they all give the feeling of being seasoned pros — the guy in the poster is a ringer for Sterling Hayden, which is probably why I thought I must have seen him before in something. (The only real professional actor was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola, so he is easy to spot, being quite photogenic.) No, this is fine filmmaking at a very granular level, building up character through the tiny accretion of details.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker | Writers Jacques Becker, José Giovanni and Jean Aurel (based on the novel by Giovanni) | Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet | Starring Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel | Length 132 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 October 2016)